Home . Reading . Economic impact on marginalized groups and indigenous communities

28 May 2021

Economic impact on marginalized groups and indigenous communities

Written by Sophie Ho and Kathakali Das Bhaumik


The article addresses the multi-faceted economic impact of the pandemic on marginalized communities and explores possible assistance paths from the Malaysian government, NGOs, and civil societies. From foreign nationals, undocumented migrants and stateless people to indigenous communities, almost all underprivileged sections of the country are going through significant financial crisis. As a result, many are unable to even afford basic necessities such as food. To counter this, private players such as Grab and Instapay Technologies have devoted initiatives towards helping the disabled, low-income communities. Government has also announced a number of stimulus packages to support marginalized groups and to strengthen the economy as a whole.


With lockdowns to curtail the spread of the virus, the COVID-19 pandemic has sent virtually every country into an economic recession in 2020. In Malaysia, the Movement Control Order was implemented on 18 March 2020 which lasted 2 weeks. However, this was just the beginning. It would be followed by a series of movement restrictions and people were not allowed to leave their houses (with a few exceptions) for long periods of time. It was a difficult time for most, but the government helped its citizens along with several government aid packages. The focus of these aid packages, however, was solely on its citizens. Malaysia is home to many foreign nationals and many of the foreign workers are undocumented, while most refugees are illegal immigrants. This marginalized community received little to no help and were severely hit by the pandemic.


Financial impacts to marginalized groups

Many foreign nationals lost their jobs during the pandemic which led to a sudden halt in their income. Undocumented or illegal immigrants in Malaysia generally earned a daily wage (as they were employed informally), so they lived from day-to-day with minimal savings. Without any financial assistance, these foreign nationals struggled to afford even basic necessities such as food and water. According to Relief Web, 64% of the Rohingya and Bangladeshi respondents experienced a loss of income.

Source: MMC Asia 4Mi Snapshot – June 2020


The losses of income hampered the migrant community’s ability to afford basic goods and housing. Rohingya respondents had a larger loss of income compared to Bangladeshis, which is possibly due to their differing migrant status and the jobs that they are able to attain.

Source MMC Asia 4Mi Snapshot – June 2020


Institutional hinderances

There are a number of stateless people in Malaysia as well for several reasons; firstly, women and men are not granted the equal right to confer nationality on their children. Malaysian women are not able to confer their nationality onto their children if they are born abroad, unlike Malaysian men. Thus, Malaysian women have to apply for citizenship for their children and this application can take years to process. There are several other groups who are stateless, like the Bajau Laut, who reside in Malaysia. They face the same problems that foreign nationals face, being excluded from government aid and mostly earning daily wages.


Indigenous groups

The indigenous groups, like the Orang Asli, are also struggling from the pandemic. The Orang Asli mainly stay in the forests of Malaysia, away from the cities. Out of fear of contracting COVID-19 and a lack of knowledge about the virus, they built barricades to prevent outsiders from entering their village.

Barrier made by Orang Asli. Photo credit: Facebook Orang Kota Tinggi


This is detrimental for them because it is now harder for the government and NGOs to provide help directly. Some NGOs help by depositing money in bank accounts, but with the MCO and their fear of entering the city, they are unable to withdraw this money. Some villages are not registered with the government and NGOs as well, which means that they are excluded from any help provided. The halt to economic activity has also hampered demand for the goods produced by the indigenous groups, like turmeric, prawns, and lemongrass — reducing the already extremely small incomes of these communities.

For women in marginalized groups, the pandemic has restricted their access to menstrual products. This is because menstrual products, despite being a necessity, are often disregarded as one. With their limited income, menstrual products have become a “luxury” and women may be more susceptible to infections from the lack of proper hygiene. This phenomenon is known as “period poverty”.

As a whole, marginalized communities in Malaysia are struggling the most but ironically receive the least help from the government and other sectors. So what can be done to help them?


What can be done by various sectors?

The Government has announced various stimulus packages over the months, with the latest being a RM20 billion package including cash transfers to marginalized and vulnerable communities. However, there seems to be an overwhelming space wherein much more could be done for the optimum welfare of these communities. Let’s take a look at different sectors that can play a pivotal role in uplifting vulnerable communities in Malaysia.

  • Government sector – The government can provide help by running a range of awareness campaigns about vaccination drives among the migrants, especially the undocumented ones, who still seem to be hesitant after the 1 May 2020 detention of hundreds of workers in Kuala Lumpur by Malaysian authorities. As per a World Bank report, around 3 million migrant workers are present in Malaysia. Khairy Jamaluddin, the head of the National COVID-19 Immunisation Programme and Science, Technology and Innovation minister, recently announced that vaccination will be given to undocumented migrant workers as well as to refugees holding a UNHCR card, starting from June 2021. The need of the hour is to stop community transmission among these workers and refugees who predominantly live in cramped accommodations. This can only be done with the right collaboration of government field workers and representatives of migrant communities.
  • Private sector – The innovation and financial resources of the private sector can play a pivotal role in mitigating the impact of the current pandemic. Private players like Grab and Instapay Technologies have been highlighted in the news for their respective initiatives towards helping the disabled, low-income communities. The Instapay app allows migrant workers to get a Mastercard and e-wallet through which they can perform financial transactions remotely, thereby reducing the COVID-19 exposure risks from physical transactions. There are countless possibilities spanning education, health, and empowerment for the underprivileged communities whereby the private sector can contribute towards a flourishing future.
  • Civil society – NGOs, individuals, and social workers have all been up and active ever since COVID-19 hit the country in March 2020. Even under the strict regimen of the Phase 1 MCO, most of them were working tirelessly towards delivering essential services to the far-flung regions of the country where the indigenous people live. Businesses and individuals both donated actively towards fundraising campaigns. However, one of the prime obstacles NGOs faced was ironically not money, but the smooth delivery and accessibility of resources for the marginalized groups. Many indigenous people have flung to forest interiors to protect themselves from the novel coronavirus. Similarly, hundreds of migrant workers went under hiding or didn’t come out for fear of being detained and deported.

Thus, reaching out to such communities is oftentimes a challenge for civil society and welfare organizations. A clear communication channel from both ends, powered by a well running medium and a hassle-free system, which includes minimal bureaucracy can form a strong base for faster assistance to marginalized groups. This may be possible through a synchronized effort by the government and civil society.


Sources: Hrasiamedia; Grab; Bestmediainfo; Channelnewsasia; Equalnationalityrights; Thestar; Aljazeera; Reliefweb; Iias; Worldbank

Written by Sophie Ho and Kathakali Das Bhaumik